April 10, 2015

‘Breakthrough moments’ shape Spirit of Service winners

Spirit of Service logoBy John Shaughnessy

Call them “breakthrough moments”—moments that people can look back upon with the realization that their lives were changed forever.

Gene Hawkins, Steve Rasmussen, Zach Smith and Franciscan Sister Norma Rocklage have each experienced those breakthrough moments in their lives.

More importantly, those moments have led each of them to dedicate their lives to making a difference in their communities, their parishes and their Church. For their efforts, all four will be honored by the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities Indianapolis during the Spirit of Service Awards Dinner on April 30 at the Indiana Roof Ballroom in Indianapolis. (Related: Colts’ Jack Doyle will be featured speaker at Spirit of Service Awards Dinner)

Here are their stories.

Steve Rasmussen

Steve RasmussenSteve Rasmussen spent 37 years putting out fires as an Indianapolis firefighter, but it was a call from a woman who wanted him to set a fire that has led him to give his heart to helping others—including assisting poor families in getting their own homes.

“My wife Nancy was a supervisor in fire control [for the Indianapolis Fire Department],” Rasmussen recalls. “A lady called there and said she wanted some brush burned that had come down during a storm. She said she was elderly and couldn’t pay somebody to haul it away. Nancy came home and said, ‘I offered your services.’ I went out there and hauled everything away. I couldn’t believe how appreciative the woman was.”

Hooked by the woman’s reaction, Rasmussen didn’t mind when his wife also volunteered him to put in railings and wheelchair ramps for shut-in members of their parish, St. Monica in Indianapolis. He was already handy with tools from his second job as a landlord of rental houses.

Those volunteer projects reached a whole new level for Rasmussen when he and his wife occasionally went to Mass at the former Holy Trinity Parish in Indianapolis, the parish where Nancy went to school as a child. That’s where Rasmussen met Father John McCaslin, its former pastor, who shared his idea of trying to transform the struggling neighborhood by buying run-down homes, rehabbing them, and then helping poor families buy them.

That idea became a non-profit organization called Hearts & Hands of Indiana—an organization that called to Rasmussen’s big heart and talented hands. He even loaned the money to purchase the first home. Since then, the man who had saved lives as a firefighter has been trying to give a new life to families who never would have had a chance to own a home. Five families are already in these houses. Another four houses are being rehabbed.

Members of Hearts & Hands praise him for his “passion” and “his constant, knowledgeable and tireless work.” Rasmussen deflects the praise.

“I’ve been blessed,” says the father of eight and the grandfather of 22. “I’ll tell you how blessed I am. There are religious sisters from Nigeria who live in the old rectory at Holy Trinity and help in the neighborhood. I’m there repairing stuff all the time. I tell Nancy, ‘They give me hugs, an apple, and they say they’ll pray for me.’ It doesn’t get better than that.”

He laughs and adds, “I just like helping people. That’s been my life for the past 30 years, and I thank Nancy for that. God’s given me the ability to do things, people call, and Nancy volunteers me for everything. I can’t say enough about her. This whole thing has been a partnership.”

Zach Smith

Zach SmithSince he was born, 18-year-old Zach Smith has been challenged by a physical condition that has made him rely on crutches and a wheelchair to get around.

During his childhood, he also struggled with questions about his abilities and his place in the world: “Can I do this? Am I physically capable of being impactful?”

Then came his breakthrough moment when he was 13. His orthopedic doctor recommended that he take part in a program that takes youths with disabilities for a scuba-diving-certification trip to the Cayman Islands.

“That trip was monumental for me,” says Zach, who will receive the Spirit of Service Youth Award. “Being able to scuba dive and go through all the exercises was the first real achievement I had on my own. That trip drove me to expect more of myself and do more in my community.”

Still, even he is amazed at the list of ways he has tried to make a difference to others in the past five years.

He has served on the inclusiveness committee and taught in the Vacation Bible School at his parish, St. Mark the Evangelist in Indianapolis. He’s given talks at schools and churches about his life and his relationship with God.

During his years at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, the senior has mentored other students with disabilities, helped out at the school’s day care center, and participated in a club that helps at an animal shelter.

He plays violin during the school’s Masses and for its theater productions. He’s also a member of the youth board for Anna’s Celebration of Life Foundation, a group that focuses on children with special needs. And he’s part of the organization team for the Midnight Mile, “a glow-stick run” that raises money for equipment for children with disabilities.

“That’s huge to me—to be helping kids similar to what I’ve been through,” says Zach, the son of Jeffrey and Rebecca Smith.

“For a long time, I’ve always felt happier by making other people smile or trying to lighten their load in some way. Doing things for others has brought me a sense of peace and fulfillment.”

Gene Hawkins

Gene HawkinsGene Hawkins doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked to share a story of making a difference in someone’s life.

“By far, youth mentoring is my favorite service effort. I was a Big Brother for someone for his whole time in high school. He was a freshman struggling in school, and he had discipline problems. I first met him at a counseling session. After we met, he never went to another session. It just goes to show you that if you have someone to talk with and hang out with, a lot of things take care of themselves. He’s in college now.”

Actually, Hawkins has been mentoring youths since he graduated in 1992 from Hofstra University in Long Island, N. Y. It’s his way of giving back.

“I don’t have an older brother, but I remember the older guys in the neighborhood looking out for me,” recalls Hawkins, who grew up in Queens, N.Y. “They spent time with me, let me be the sixth man on the basketball team, and told me about the guys to stay away from. And I saw they went to church.”

Hawkins also learned from his parents.

“My parents were big time volunteers. My mom is deceased now, but she was like the neighborhood mayor. My dad is 82, and he still volunteers. That’s what we were raised to do.”

Hawkins has followed that example with amazing dedication, especially since he became a member of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis in 1995. He’s served as an usher, a lector, a confirmation catechist, a member of the parish council, and the executive director of the parish’s capital campaign.

“I chose my home up the block from Holy Angels,” says Hawkins, a father of two who has been married to his wife Michelle for 15 years. “I can walk there. I’ve been in everything I can think of at Holy Angels. It’s good for me, my family and my kids. My wife knows where to find me when she’s looking for me.”

Hawkins also looks to make a difference by helping with voter registration and voter education programs through the NAACP. And he mentors youths through his involvement in the National Society of Black Engineers.

He describes his Catholic faith as the driving force in his service.

“I really enjoy being Catholic. Catholics are on the front line of being there for the poor and the disadvantaged. I’ve always equated my faith to being one of service to others.”

Sr. Norma Rocklage, O.S.F.

Franciscan Sister Norma RocklageFranciscan Sister Norma Rocklage learned the importance of reaching out to others when she grew up during the Great Depression, a time of devastating hardship and unemployment in the United States that left most families struggling.

“I was one of eight children raised by parents who taught us we needed to share what we have,” says Sister Norma, who will receive the Community Service Award. “If you can’t share materially, you share with your service. All eight of us took turns going to the store for the senior citizens in our area. We learned to give what we can.”

That same approach to life by the Oldenburg Franciscans led her to enter the order in 1951.

“Our whole community’s mission is to reach out where there’s a need,” she says. “Our foundress, Mother Theresa Hackelmeier, exemplified ‘the courage to venture.’ That’s the spirit that guides us.”

It’s a spirit that continues to overflow from Sister Norma at 81. Striving for peace and justice as a member of Pax Christi of Indianapolis, she fasted for 72.5 hours in March in the hope of convincing the Indiana legislature to increase the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

That effort in solidarity with the poor reflects the approach she takes as the executive director of education formation outreach for Marian University in Indianapolis. Sister Norma constantly strives to connect Marian’s students, faculty and staff in interfaith efforts to improve the lives of the vulnerable.

She’s followed that path in her own life as she has served in other roles for the archdiocese and her community.

Starting in 1953, she taught for three years at St. Mary School in North Vernon. From 1965 until 1974, she served at Marian as an assistant professor of classical language, dean of academic affairs and director of scholastics.

From 1974 to 1982, Sister Norma was a member of the general council for the Oldenburg Franciscan community. She was also the community’s novice director for two years. In 1989, she returned to Marian as acting president for six months and then served as vice president for mission effectiveness until 2001.

“It’s the idea of really living out the call of God to help others,” she says. “It’s a moral imperative for us to share what we have with other people, to love each other not just in words but in giving what we have. The service we do helps us to come close to God and experience God.

“We can help transform the world.” †

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